Originally Published in Blue Lyra Review, Feb. 2015
The greatest gift I ever received was a book I never read.
The winter I turned eleven, I sat at the desk in the dormer window, waiting. We got the desk at a yard sale, and it was supposed to be for all seven of us kids, but somehow I’d taken it over. In the basement, I found a lime green bucket of paint and painted it and colored the knobs a canary yellow. I lived at that desk, studying my school books, writing in notebooks. I spent hours at that desk, pretending I was some kind of professor or a famous writer, or some other thing that wasn’t real for someone like me in that cold, hard place.
It was an important day. I’d already been waiting for hours, for years, for centuries.
From that dormer window, I could see so far, up and down Cochise, over the roofs of brick houses, across crabby cow fields, beyond beat-up dog pens. Kids were everywhere, whooping and hollering like packs of wild beasts, boot skating on road ice, building crooked snow people, getting bruised and bloodied by the physicality of the earth. This rural part of mid-Missouri was a vast place — the people fisted it up, but the earth itself was infinite.
Winter in mid-Missouri was a thin layer of ice, a cold crunch. A quiet and vast dusting, a white out of the soul. This place was rough, wild, dirty. Mean. Bitter and filthy. I never felt separate from this land. When I was little, my flesh was sassafras bark. Every crunch of ice, every frozen creek, every burr caught in my coat was me. I was the liquefied ice at the edge of the earth. I was the scratched and crooked roots that bore deep into that hardened Midwestern flesh.
Out the window, a Coup de Ville edged up to the curb. I didn’t move. It was important not to be eager, not to be excited, not to show how deeply you desired.
I watched as Jackie got out of the passenger side. She wore a coat that was too big, and a cheap red scarf that was too small. Her mittens were flowered. She didn’t match. In this part of Missouri, it wasn’t important to match.
Mac and the kid got out. I could never remember the kid’s name. He was beige, his skin beige, his coat beige and his hair was beige too. We had a whole mess of cousins whose names I couldn’t remember. All three ambled across the snowy front yard in awkward silence. This was a slow place. People walked and talked like the crops grew, sluggish, with not much showing on the surface. But below the soil, the roots were inflamed, vibrating with a pain that would smack you hard and fast, that would stab or shoot you when you turned your back.
I heard them enter the back door, heard mumblings downstairs.
Still, I waited.
“Carrie, get on down here now,” Mom finally called from the living room.
I jumped and rushed toward the door, before I remembered and forced myself to stop. Desiring too much got you smacked down. Desire was something a woman in that barbed wire place was not allowed. I paced myself going down the threadbare stairs. We had orange shag carpet, and for years all seven of us had been sliding down the stairs on our butts. Most of the stairs now were bald, with orange shag like old man hair at the edges. There were holes in the shag in the living room too. Dad worked in floor covering, but we never got new carpet.
On the sofa, Jackie sat folded into herself, like all her body parts were put together every morning in a different way. Mac had a handle-bar mustache. He had the tip of his ‘stache greased up with Vaseline to keep it in a perfect curl against his cheeks. He was fat, and he squished his face backwards as if he found everything distasteful. I’m sure there were kids running in and out, but I don’t remember them. This was my day.
Hanging behind Mac and Jackie was a bloodied picture of Jesus. It was one of those holographic photos that changed when you moved your head. His eyes were open in one view, and closed in another. I see you. I don’t see you. I see you. I don’t see you.
In the corner stood the tree. Lights glittered in peripheral vision like something close to hope. Every year, we’d take the truck a few miles to some forested field, trudge through snow to a copse of evergreens and use a hand saw. We couldn’t afford boots for all seven kids so Mom put Wonder Bread bags over our socks, and affixed them with a rubber band around our ankles. The snow was so deep it was higher than the Wonder bags. We dragged the huge evergreen behind us in the snow, carving a brushy path, leaving frazzled angels in our wake, ankles on fire with the ice that’d seeped in.
I stood in front of the adults. I was still healthy at eleven. The troubles hadn’t started yet. At eleven, I was still a force to be reckoned with. I was a runner, a vigor of muscle and will.
Nobody said much. In this part of Missouri, it wasn’t done. The silence went back generations. Nobody told stories. The hush wove its way into sinew and bone. When I left that bloody stump place, when I became an adult, I had to teach myself how to speak in social situations. As a kid, I only learned how to keep the words locked up tight in my shoulders, pushed down in my gut.
Jackie looked at me hard and forceful, her eyes blue and cracked, like she was trying to see into my soul. I tried not to look back at her. I was worried about what I might find there. When you saw too much, it could be a terrifying burden. In my hometown, seeing too much was a weight that could bend you in half.
I looked at my mother. All my life in that gritty place, I never found a woman I wanted to be. Married at eighteen, hauling packs of kids around like sacks of potatoes, following the men, always following the men. The only person who was even close to my way of thinking was my older sister. She was an artist. She could make magic out of trash. When she walked into a room you could cut her energy with a knife. She was also a drunk, even back then, even as a girl. My life involved hauling her off the bathroom floor, blood running from her ear where she hit the toilet on the way down. My life involved punching and kicking men as they tried to pull her into their trucks, where she was willing to go, always willing to go. She was my only reflection, my warped and cracked mirror.
Jackie had a gift next to her on the sofa. She handed it to me. Every Christmas, she and Mac drove around Missouri seeing kinfolk. I was their god-daughter. The gift was wrapped in cheap red Christmas paper, the kind you buy in bulk from Walmart with tiny Santas on it. It felt damp in my hands, like someone had dropped it in the snow.
Something hard and raw like sauerkraut wafted in from the kitchen. Food was no small thing in our house. The creatures in the forest were our food. The roots from the sassafras were our food. The gooseberries in the thicket by the garden were our food. Pheasant, duck, squirrel, cabbage, russet potatoes, corn.
With Jesus’ eyes closed, I tore the paper in front of the four adults. Last year it was a Lite Brite box. Another year, it was a big box of colored pencils – art supplies in mid-Missouri! You cain’t live on no art supplies. You cain’t eat no art supplies.
The damp wrapping paper didn’t tear with a whistle but disintegrated with a mush. I let the paper drop in a torn heap on the torn shag. I went ice cold when I saw what it was. If you didn’t know me, you would’ve thought I was unhappy. But I wasn’t. I went cold when something was too big to react to, when any reaction couldn’t possibly cover the situation. In that family, I went cold a lot.
It was a book. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I had never owned a book before. Ever. The only books in the house were a King James Bible and the farmer’s almanac. When I was nine, I locked myself in the upstairs bathroom every night and read the Bible page for page, just for something to read. One of my older brothers caught me coming out with the good book under my arm. He lifted his fist. “You think you’re real smart, don’t you.” He punched a bruise into my upper arm. “You think you’re something special.”
Mostly, though, I was ignored. It was good to fall between the cracks. It was better when no one took notice of you. These people could hurt you with their attention. These people were known to destroy your life with their repeated attention.
I stood there and stared at Little Women as if it were far away, as if I were sitting in the dormer window looking out, and the book was far far below. I think I left my body. I moved. Jesus’ eyes opened. I fell back into my body. I stared at Aunt Jackie — those laser eyes. When I met her gaze, we flew into each other’s souls. I swear we both left our bodies and flew off the planet. We became two stars dancing in the black universe, just the two of us in some far off place where anything, just anything, was possible.
I’m sure I said thank you. I don’t remember. I found myself slipping upward on the carpet, up and up. I could feel Aunt Jackie’s eyes on my back, begging. For what? Pleading. To whom? She wanted something from me, but I didn’t know what. Some spark of hope or possibility in our threadbare world; was that it? I had to keep moving, to get away from the eyes, up and up the stairs, until I was safely behind my bedroom door, until I was back in the dormer window. Until I was alone again, and hidden.
The book was a blue, glossy, hardback. I put the binding up to my nose and breathed it into my flesh. It smelled like glue. I worried the texture of a single page between my fingertips. I turned it over in my hands and put my palm flat on the glossy cover. I rubbed my hand over and over that book – for minutes, for years, for centuries, reading it through my palm.
I better not think I was too smart with all that book larnin. Real larnin’ happened when you used your hands for labor. You cain’t eat no books. You cain’t live on no books. Real larnin meant knowing how to shoot a beast through the eyes, tear off their fur, and yank out their guts.
Sometimes my older sister would bring home tattered searing saga bodice rippers. I’d tear at the paperbacks as if with my teeth, voracious like an animal. I’d salivate as I bore through the story, devouring three hundred pages in one sitting. I was starving for story.
I never read Little Women. To this day, I have not read the book. I couldn’t. How could I? Every time I opened the cover, I could barely breathe. If I tried to read all of its pages, I would surely suffocate. The book was like a mirror, and if I opened it, I’d see my own face. I wasn’t ready to see my own face. My first book. My only book. A book. For me.
I slept with Little Women. I ate with Little Women. I took Little Women to school, to track practice. I threw it in the back seat of my Ford Pinto when I turned sixteen. I ended up taking Little Women to college. I broke the binding sleeping with it so much. Finally, the pages started falling out like the hair of an old woman, and I had to let her go.
When I turned forty, decades after I left Missouri never to return, when I was estranged from all things Missouri, after a career all over the world as a journalist and then as a fiction writer, I wrote Aunt Jackie a letter. She was still a nurse in Missouri. I told her that I was a writer now, and a visual artist. I sent her paintings. Not stories. I didn’t want to open the door to the stories. There were reasons for the silence. I’d spent a decade opening my own door to my own stories, and all hell had broken loose. I didn’t want to evoke the caged beast that rattled behind that mid-Missouri reticence. I was learning that some people needed the silence. To survive.
I realized I still hadn’t read Little Women. I found a copy in a two dollar bin at Barnes and Noble. I sat on the bed, opened the cover and started sobbing. I couldn’t see a word. I couldn’t stop sobbing.
For weeks, every time I opened the book I’d break down in tears. It was hopeless. The book stayed on my bed. I didn’t move it. As I slept, it lay there at the foot of the bed. How long would the binding last this time, as I tossed and turned and had my Little Woman dreams?
I decided enough was enough. I had to get the DVD and just watch the damned thing. This was ridiculous. I was forty years old!
And so, I watched Little Women, one night by myself on a tiny TV. I sat there in shock. Jo’s story was my story. Both the story of me as an 11-year-old, and the story of how my life would evolve, as a tomboy, somebody hot-tempered who would travel, someone who was a writer.
I wailed watching that movie, bent over at the waist. My whole world cracked open, as if I were a beast of the forest, and I were being butchered, fur torn off, guts rifled and studied like some beastly oracle. Raw. Exposed.
Jackie had seen me in that unseen world.
Those eyes. I thought back to those eyes. Jesus eyes. Jackie’s. My own seeing. As a child, before I traveled the world, when the travel happened in my soul, I would look out that dormer window, and fly on blistery winds above our property. I’d soar over the scrappy vegetable garden and cow fields, beyond the twisted barbed wire, over the iced-over dog house where Buck was chained all day, his life never more than a circle of dirt. I would ascend over Missouri, above fields parceled out like a rag quilt. I’d soar beyond the state, along black bulbous skies, over rocky and wild mountains, across oceans, to foreign lands. Even when I was a kid I could see so far.
What could Jackie see? My mother? These hidden women.
This battered. This divine. This feminine.
What were their veiled dreams? How far can each of us see, deep into the soul of the world? In that house where women fell between the cracks.
I see you. I don’t see you.
I see you.
I see you.
I see you.